Originally posted on The Horizons Tracker.
Why do people have varying attitudes towards science despite evidence? Researchers have traditionally focused on understanding what people know about science, assuming that knowledge leads to acceptance. However, it is not clear if individuals who claim to know science truly understand it.
Research1 from the University of Bath suggests that people with stronger attitudes tend to have more confidence in their understanding of science, with those people with more neutral stances less confident. In other words, those with strong negative attitudes toward science often have an inflated belief in their own knowledge.
The study focuses on a survey of over 2,000 adults in the UK, which aimed to understand the attitudes and beliefs about science, particularly in the context of vaccines, climate change, and GM foods.
Prior research has suggested that individuals who hold negative attitudes toward science tend to have low levels of scientific knowledge but a strong belief in their understanding. Building on this insight, the team set out to investigate whether strong self-belief underlies all strong attitudes toward science.
The team focused on genetic science and asked attitudinal questions, such as “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” People could say how much they agreed or disagreed with such a statement. They also asked questions about how much they believe they understand about such science, including “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means.”
The study assigned a score to each individual, ranging from zero (no understanding) to one (confidence in understanding), and found that those with strong attitudes towards science (both positive and negative) had high self-belief in their understanding, while those with neutral attitudes did not.
Psychologically, this makes sense as having a strong opinion requires confidence in one’s understanding of the facts. The study also found that individuals with negative attitudes toward science tend to have low levels of scientific knowledge, while those with positive attitudes both believe they understand it and scored well on factual questions.
This suggests that previous efforts to improve scientific literacy by solely passing information from scientists to the public may not be effective and could even backfire. A more effective strategy may be addressing the discrepancy between what people know and what they believe they know.
“Confronting negative attitudes towards science held by some people will likely involve deconstructing what they think they know about science and replacing it with more accurate understanding. This is quite challenging,” the researchers conclude.
“Why do some people hold strong attitudes to science whilst others are more neutral? We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are underpinned by strong self-confidence in knowledge about science.”
- Fonseca, C., Pettitt, J., Woollard, A., Rutherford, A., Bickmore, W., Ferguson-Smith, A., & Hurst, L. D. (2023). People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified. PLoS Biology, 21(1), e3001915. ↩